Skip to content

The Liberal/Leftist Case Against Israel: A Rebuttal

Ricochet member Trace Urdan has drawn my attention to an interesting piece that just appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education: a review, by Alan Wolfe, of several books critical of Israel. The review, entitled “Israel’s Moral Peril,” draws a distinction between liberal criticism — that which accepts Israel’s legitimacy and views a two-state solution as the only means by which Israel can maintain its ethics and ensure the rights of its non-Jewish citizens — and leftist criticism, which rejects Israel outright as fundamentally colonialist and racist. Wolfe argues that as criticism of Israel grows ever more vociferous, “the question of which of these approaches will attract the most followers will become increasingly important.”

One obviously need not go far to hear either of these arguments enthusiastically expressed; an avowal of one or the other is practically required for anyone hoping for a long and prosperous career in the American or European academy. What makes Wolfe’s piece interesting is the personal angle: he is himself a secular American Jew, raised on the same brand of milky, earnest, emotional, Reform-Jew love for Israel that produced yours truly. Wolfe’s journey toward criticism of Israel was clearly fraught for him, and he is candid about this in the article.

But the piece warrants close reading as much for what it does not say as for what it does. For all his painful self-examination, Wolfe is so serenely confident of the premise of Israel’s ultimate culpability that he scarcely acknowledges that the other side bears any responsibility for the moribund state of the peace process. The Palestinians are simply not to be held accountable for their own choices and actions. Their more egregious acts of violence are to be frowned upon and even, in extreme cases, acknowledged as justifying, to some degree, Israeli anxiety about the Palestinians’ desire for peace — but the Palestinians must under no circumstances be expected to take responsibility for their own bad choices. Any negative consequences that result — walls, for example, erected to stop the quotidian problem of Palestinian-on-Israeli violence — are evidence not of the extremes to which Israel is pushed to keep its citizens safe, but of fundamental and eternal Israeli fault, and fundamental and eternal Palestinian victimhood.

The Jews, on the other hand, must be held responsible again and again and again. Their stubborn insistence on defending their lives and property must at all times be apologized for, and they are above all to be punished for their presumptuous desire to live on their own historic land. The equivalent Palestinian desire is, of course, respected (how splendid that they are defined by their connection to the land!), admired (how moving it is that their passion for the land remains undiminished through time and travail!), understood (these are people who know the meaning of “home”), and encouraged (it is not, after all, for those of us who have never suffered the agony of exile to criticize the way that agony is expressed).

This is a double standard, pure and simple. And I apologize in advance for getting Mr. Wolfe’s liberal knickers in a twist (in the extremely unlikely event that he reads my blog), but the basis of that double standard is racism.

The word racist is thrown at Israel a lot, but we are not the racists in the picture — people who prefer to avoid giving yet more chunks of territory away as extortion payments might be many things, but they are not defined by their racism. Racism is assuming that a whole people cannot be held accountable for anything because they are not capable of distinguishing right from wrong. Racism is listening sagely while a people’s elected leadership states its desire for the total eradication of another people and the theft of all its property, nodding benignly, and then writing the words off as meaningless since those people can’t, after all, be expected to express themselves in any but the most primitive manner. Racism is overlooking or excusing unconscionable and often stupidly self-defeating behavior because those people can’t be expected to do any better. And yes: racism is expecting the paler people in the scenario to behave better than the darker people, and to set a good, instructive example of conciliation. Surely, the racist blithely assumes, the darker people will respond beautifully to such enlightenment. The notion that they are in fact fully as capable of formulating a world view as their white defenders, and that their expression of it is not gibberish but in fact exactly what they mean, is not within the realm of possibility.

This double standard, in combination with that curious brand of cognitive disconnect that tends to characterize so many Americans’ experience of history, is threaded throughout Wolfe’s review. He describes Israel’s victory in 1967 as the first moment when his youthful,tzedaka-collecting, tree-planting affection for Israel began to waver: “I was too much involved in the protests against Vietnam to become an enthusiast for war of any kind.” To interpret elation at Israel’s rescue from destruction — in less than a week, no less — as enthusiasm for war is to completely miss both the reality of the danger Israel was in and the eagerness of Israel for the war to end as quickly as possible, but I see his point, sort of.

But his allegiance was hopelessly shattered by the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982 (when Sharon stepped aside and let Christian militiamen slaughter Palestinian refugees), and Wolfe jumped right off the reality train. From that point forward, it was one side fits all. “The truly odious Arafat is no longer with us,” he writes. (Okay. And where is the Mandela that replaced him?) “[N]ew Palestinian intellectuals and leaders are making an impressive case for statehood.” (Name three.) “The cruelty of Israel’s blockade of Gaza” (no reference to any reasons why Israel — and Egypt — placed Gaza under blockade in the first place), “as well as the clearly peace-destroying intentions of Jewish settlers in Palestinian territory are impossible to ignore” (no mention that it’s the Palestinians, not the settlers, who have declared their intention of making the area free of the other as soon as they get the chance). “Chilling leaks suggest the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities” (Good heavens! No mention, of course, of Iran’s apocalyptic threats to annihilate Israel completely — such mention would be to commit the dread crime of invoking the Holocaust, which real thinkers have apparently agreed is the mark of a fundamentally flawed argument. Unless it’s invoked to implore the Jews not to repeat the crimes once visited upon them, but more on that below).

Wolfe wants to know which camp of Israel criticism he should join, the liberal or the leftist. The liberal case has been laid out by two young Jewish writers: Gershom Gorenberg in The Unmaking of Israel and Peter Beinart in The Crisis of Zionism.

Gorenberg is American but lives in Israel. He believes its ultimate success as a liberal democracy will depend on three things: a reduction of the influence of the ultra-Orthodox by more strictly separating synagogue and state (I agree 100%), a reform of the legal system to ensure that all ethnic groups are treated equally (wholeheartedly with him there too), and pulling out of the whole West Bank. (Oops — lost me on that one.) Gorenberg believes these three pillars will make Israel more stable as a democracy and “more secure in the long run if it voluntarily gives up land it cannot control.” I see this point from a demographic point of view, but demographics won’t count for a hell of a lot if the opponent is emboldened by the concession into becoming more aggressive and violent. Which, judging from the Palestinian response to the Israeli evacuation of Gaza, is a likely result. (For anyone eager to point out that the launching of a war against southern Israel — the showering of rockets onto Israeli civilian communities — was the work of maximalist, Islamist Hamas and not our friends the peacemakers in Ramallah, I remind them of Fatah’s recent reconciliation with Hamas, another historical event about which Wolfe is conspicuously mute.)

Beinart has been in the news recently for a piece he wrote for The New York Times in which he advocated the boycotting of goods produced in the Israeli settlements. He also wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books in 2010 called “The Failure of the American-Jewish Establishment,” of which the recent book The Crisis of Zionism is an expansion. Beinart describes a liberal Jewish awakening that occurred in the US in the seventies, led by a Chicago rabbi named Arnold Wolf. Apparently one of the young idealists who ran with this crowd was Barack Obama, an “aspiring politician [who] was a liberal Zionist at heart.”

Beinart takes Obama to task for failing, as president, to bring a Palestinian state into existence and thereby fulfill the greatest aspiration of liberal Zionism. Obama can’t entirely be blamed, though. According to Beinart, his Israeli opponent — PM Bibi Netanyahu — is so adept at “playing off strong Congressional support for Israel against any presidential inclination to take the peace process seriously” that a Palestinian state is “a battle [Obama] cannot win.” AIPAC is largely to blame, Beinart implies, for strengthening Netanyahu at Obama’s expense, with the Palestinians — as ever — the real victims. Interestingly, Beinart’s prescription is for American Jews to take their Judaism more seriously. He believes that familiarity with the strong ethical code of the faith will encourage Jews down a more liberal path.

Now, to hardcore leftist critics of Israel, all this look-inward-and-find-the-moral-compass business is kid stuff. Wolfe cites Gabriel Piterberg, historian at UCLA and frequent contributor to the New Left Review, whose book, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel, dismisses Israel as a monument to “white settler colonialism.” Piterberg cites Bernard Lazare, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt (all Jews, by the way), who also saw Zionism as a fundamentally colonialist enterprise.

Wolfe then discusses Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric at Berkeley, whose forthcoming book — Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism — states that Zionism stands in direct opposition to themes of Jewish tradition. (Butler is thus taking her place on the barricades alongside the Satmar and the Neturei Karta, Jewish religious sects that are furiously anti-Zionist.) Like Piterberg, Butler draws on Arendt, who claimed that the Jews’ lack of a state — their “unchosenness”, to use Butler’s term — strengthened Jewish ethics, and that statehood (if I’m understanding Butler correctly) saps them. Or, to quote Butler directly: “it is not only that we may not choose with whom to cohabit, but that we must actively preserve the unchosen character of inclusive and plural cohabitation.” (I’m so glad I left academia.)

Because Jews have survived an attempt at extermination, Butler argues, we have a higher obligation to resist the desire to live only with people like ourselves. And because that is Zionism’s ultimate goal, “Israel has been illiberal from the moment of its creation.”

Except that Israel is one-fifth Arab. It was never Israel’s intention to become an Arab-free state. It is, on the other hand, the Palestinians’ stated goal to create a Jew-free Palestine, and Palestinian children are being fed a steady diet of Jew-hatred in their school textbooks and at the mosque. When their state comes into being, will Judith Butler write books about Palestine being illiberal from the moment of its creation?

Butler indulges in some of those wonderfully zany flights of fancy that can only be gotten away with in the academic world. She asserts that because the Jews’ ethical soundness depends on their dispossession, all Palestinians should be granted the right of return. It’s a win-win! While a little impracticable, that’s at least consistent on a philosophical level. Where she really goes bananas is in the followup: she believes that this mass “return” would result not in the destruction of the Jewish people of Israel, but merely in “the dismantling of the structure of Jewish sovereignty and demographic advantage.” Via what she calls our “complex and antagonistic modes of living together” (you can say that again!), the Jews would “make the case on the basis of their own history of exile for why their Arab neighbors ought not to choose living without them” (Wolfe’s words). The Palestinians would then recall their own experience of exile and we would all hug, or something.

In the end, Wolfe takes the side of the liberals over the leftists because he believes “naivete is preferable to irresponsibility,” which is at least honest. “Israel is a fact of life,” he writes (I can almost hear the sigh), “and given both its military strength and support from the United States, it is going to be with us for some time.” Still, he must be given credit for being at least slightly aware of reality. He notes that Butler, her protestations notwithstanding, “really is calling for the destruction of the Jewish state…Her [one-state solution] would leave Israeli Jews at the mercy of people who would surely take revenge against them if given the chance. I realize that Butler is a philosopher and not a political scientist. Yet even philosophers must say something about the real-world implications of the ideas they advocate. Taking into account the other is indeed a feature of the Jewish ethical tradition. Collective suicide is not.”

I’m glad Wolfe has figured out which team to join, but ultimately I’m not convinced that it matters very much which of the two anti-Israel strains of thought — the liberal or the leftist — gains sway. They are equally insidious, because they’re based on the same faulty premises. They both insist that all that’s required for peace to reign is Israeli willingness to make concessions, despite the known results of the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. They both maintain that not only are the Palestinians to be absolved from the consequences of their own actions, but that the Jews are to be obliged to compensate the Palestinians ad infinitum for their own disastrous choices. They are both fundamentally racist in their terminal condescension toward the Palestinians, a condescension that has allowed the Palestinians to sidestep any responsibility for carving out a genuine peace. It has occurred to neither camp to press the Palestinians to alter the poisonous way their children are educated about Jews. Both liberals and leftists reject the validity of the Jewish historical claim to the land while trumpeting the validity of the Palestinian claim. They both reject the appropriateness of Israeli anxiety about a new Holocaust — despite language meant explicitly to suggest it coming out of the mouths of Palestinians (and Persians) — while insisting we remain vigilant about our behaving like Nazis ourselves, an analogy both ridiculous on the evidence and disgusting in its inappropriateness.

When liberals and leftists write articles lamenting the Palestinians’ “moral peril,” we might be able to have an actual dialogue. I assure you that many Israelis — who are far better at criticizing Israel than any of you pikers — will jump right into the conversation. In the meantime, we’ll get on with trying to keep ourselves in one piece, and you can talk amongst yourselves. I can see you’re doing that already.

Thank You, AIPAC

I had the privilege —  along with 13,000 other delegates — of attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington last week. It was an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting two-and-a-half days — indeed, it was so jam-packed with speeches, panel discussions, breakout seminar discussions, luncheons, dinners, and galas that my mind is still reeling. The level of planning involved was somewhere between a Hollywood feature, a party convention, and a military operation.

Obama at AIPAC

You have probably heard that President Obama, in his address to AIPAC, assured the crowd that he has Israel’s back. That may or may not be true. What is undeniable is that AIPAC has Israel’s back, and that’s extremely reassuring — particularly as we’re more than likely to be facing another four years of an Obama administration, four years in which he will no longer require the support of the Jewish electorate.

Here are some of the main impressions I had of the speakers at the conference.

  1. President Obama spoke compellingly and with dignity, but was visibly ill at ease. He was very much on the defensive, which is, after all, only to be expected (AIPAC is hardly his home crowd, and I imagine he was glad when the speech was over). He was certainly correct to point out that it is easy for contenders not yet in office to beat the drums of war, and much harder for a sitting president to send young men and women into harm’s way. He did reference Iranian nuclear capability, rather than an Iranian bomb, as the end that must be avoided, and stated explicitly that containment is not an option. He alluded to a military option as a last resort but did not elaborate on what that might entail.
  2. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) projected a powerful combination of the charmingly avuncular Southern gentleman and the butt-kicking, name-taking quiet man whom you cross at your peril. He dismissed Obama’s Iran policy as flawed because of its refusal to delineate clear military consequences to Iranian provocation, and stated that if sufficient intelligence were gleaned indicating that Iran was pursuing the bomb, he would personally introduce authorization to Congress for the use of “overwhelming” military force to prevent Iran from enriching uranium to weapons-grade level. The crowd ate it up, and I confess that I’m an avid new fan.
  3. Netanyahu at AIPAC

    Bibi Netanyahu was greeted like a rock star. Coming from Israel, I couldn’t help but smile at this — and he couldn’t either, joking, “Wow, it’s like in the Knesset!” to the cheering crowd. (Honestly, it must be hard for Bibi and Sara to fly home after they come to Washington.) Bibi is a gifted public speaker: he has a way of leaning on the podium with one elbow and lowering his voice conspiratorially that makes you feel as though he’s schmoozing directly with you, even though there are 13,000 other people in the room. He also has a talent for weaving that schmoozy intimacy with the deeply (and controversially) serious, as when he held up the letter from FDR’s State Department refusing to bomb Auschwitz in 1944 on the grounds that it might prompt “even more vindictive action by the Germans”. That is an extremely fraught analogy, and Bibi was quick to deny the obvious implication of a correlation between FDR and Obama (“the American government today is different”). Still, as Haaretz has pointed out, Bibi’s invoking the Holocaust was all but announcing his intention to preempt Iran. This is verbal hardball, and Bibi’s taking heat for it at home. I wonder, though, having heard some Iran experts speak (see below), whether the tough talk is itself a tactic, and an effective one, in a greater deterrence strategy. The current regime in Iran won’t back off until it’s frightened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

  4. Kathy Ireland at AIPAC

    The ex-Sports Illustrated swimsuit pin-up turned mega-mogul Kathy Ireland, who delivered a moving speech proclaiming her support for Israel as a Christian American, is a terrific speaker and won the hearts of the whole crowd. She is also absolutely flipping gorgeous in person. Wow. (Just saying.)

  5. Mitt Romney, who spoke to us via satellite, spoke much more passionately and impressively than I think anybody was expecting him to (at least anyone I spoke to). He invoked a personal friendship of long standing with Bibi, which was news to me (they apparently worked together years ago at Boston Consulting Group). He used the Iran issue to make the point that he plans to expand the US military rather than reduce it, and explicitly referenced his disapproval of Obama’s granting of the 1967 borders to the Palestinians as a basis for negotiation with us. This was striking, as it underlined the irrelevance of the Palestinians at the conference (I think Romney was the first person to bring them up, and he spoke on the last day). He also said outright that “talking about a peace process right now is a bit like setting up a tent in the middle of a hurricane,” which was quite bracingly direct. And he pointedly stated that if he becomes president, his first trip will be to Jerusalem, not “to Cairo or Riyadh or Ankara.”
  6. Rick Santorum spoke in person even though it was Super Tuesday — the only one of the three major Republican contenders to do so. The substance of his speech was in line with the overall theme — Iran has to be stopped — but I was surprised that he didn’t take greater advantage of the opportunity to press home his affiliation with the evangelical Christian community, which has a healthy relationship with AIPAC and whose support of Israel is deeply appreciated by many members of the organization. It would have been an easy way to score some points and to differentiate himself from his Republican opponents.
  7. Newt Gingrich phoned it in, literally. He spoke the expected sound bytes via satellite — whizzing through them in a couple of minutes — and didn’t bother to try to appear particularly engaged. It was a strange turn and easily one of the most disappointing of the conference (the other clunker was Leon Panetta, whose speech was as long as those of Obama and Bibi but was padded, tedious and unenlightening). The weirdness of Gingrich’s performance suggested (possibly) some irritation at having to spend time talking to us on Super Tuesday, a sentiment Romney and Santorum might well have shared but were at pains to conceal.
  8. Liz Cheney is a stalwart friend of Israel and an attack dog toward Barack Obama. Yikes! She and Jane Harman (a former Democratic US Representative for the 36th Californian Congressional district and currently head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center) went at it tooth and nail on a panel before the full crowd (Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari was there too, but couldn’t compete with the entertainment value of the animus between the two women). Cheney cannonballed straight into the deep end of partisan politics, turning the Iran question into a referendum on Obama. She said, essentially, that the Israelis would be fools to rely either on him or on American intelligence gathering, and said that Obama has done more to “undermine and delegitimize Israel” than any other president and is more concerned with containing Israel than protecting her. The assembly was bipartisan — I met some very committed Democrats at the conference — but the overall response to Cheney was much more enthusiastic than not.
  9. Mike Murphy, Donna Brazile, Bill Kristol and Paul Begala had a rapid-fire wonk-fest before the capacity crowd at which they traded predictions about Super Tuesday and the presidential race in general. The numbers flew so fast it was hard to keep up, but the takeaways were that Kristol finds the Republican field depressing, Begala is quite entertaining in a cheerful, borderline crude way and gets a West Wing-y high out of mixing it up with his colleagues, Brazile is a class act, and Murphy is some kind of political gaming savant. (I knew this already from the Ricochet podcasts, but it was really something to hear live. How does he keep all that in his head?) I walked out of that one a little bewildered, but liked the fly-on-the-wall aspect of listening to four pros — particularly four pros who come from different political traditions but seem to enjoy and respect one another — hammer it out.
  10. I had the great good fortune to attend a fascinating seminar offered by Ali Alfoneh, an Iranian expert on Iran at the American Enterprise Institute, and Emanuele Ottolenghi, an Italian expert on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Alfoneh made an interesting and important point, and this is what I was alluding to above with reference to Netanyahu’s rather extreme posturing about Iran. He reminded the group that when George Bush was asked why he decided to invade Iraq and take down Saddam, his reply was, “That man tried to kill my Dad.” Bush subsequently took all kinds of abuse in the West and in the US for being unsophisticated, reckless and infantile. In the Middle East, however, among the more radical regimes, a different kind of notice was taken. In this region, as Alfoneh put it to laughter, “if somebody tries to kill your Dad, invading their country and starting a war is the most lenient reaction you can show.” Alfoneh said the more radical regimes, Iran in particular, were equally alarmed by Bush’s candid statement that God’s instruction was part of his motivation, another assertion that brought heaps of ridicule down on Bush’s head. Bush’s unpredictable nature “planted fear into the hearts of the Republican Guard officers,” who were sufficiently concerned that Bush was ready to use force against them that they were held in check. Obama’s verbal style, by contrast, is highly sophisticated in a way that impresses the daylights out of Western observers but does nothing but reassure the Republican Guard, which “[does] not believe, unfortunately, that President Obama is ready to use force against them in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.”
  11. I attended a tent gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which was a hoot. I learned there that Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is hilarious off the cuff, and that Michele Bachmann (R-MN)  is an effortlessly terrific speaker — she addressed the group with no notes (and no TelePrompter — it was a small room), and delivered a wonderful, rousing address full of rhetorical flourishes. She’s also a knockout. She conveys a very attractive aura of sensible calm in person — a persona that could not contrast more strongly with the general depiction of her in the mainstream media during the campaign for the Republican nomination as an out-of-her-depth, jumped-up wannabe who might also be half off her rocker. I hope we haven’t seen the last of her on the national stage.

The conference was amazing not only for this astonishing line-up of speakers and panelists but for the opportunity to meet so many other Americans who are so passionately engaged. I met people from all over the country, and everyone — no matter where they fell on the political spectrum — was friendly, excited, and eager to talk. We got up at 5:30 am every morning to get through security checks and collapsed every evening, but it was a wonderful exhaustion. I thank AIPAC for putting together such a remarkable gathering — and for existing at all. These are dangerous times, and Israel needs friends like these in the US.

“I Am the American Dream”

You might have seen this ad already — I just saw it for the first time this morning; it was posted by a Facebook friend — but it strikes me as interesting, particularly in light of the South Carolina results. (Click on it to see it larger.)

Obama 2012 ad

Now, it’s easy to look at this with a partisan shrug — yeah, you’re really one of the masses, Barry. And way to slide right past those pesky little issues like the recession. And are we feeling a little defensive today? What’s up with the capitals?

But this seems to me a very effective ad. It’s defensive, yes, but the weaving together of a rockets’-red-glare sentimental patriotism with a contemptuous, patronizing tone toward dissenters reassures Obama fans that they are on the side of both the good and the intelligent. The hectoring, all-caps, drumming-it-in tone of the denials is designed to convey the impression — or I should say reinforce the impression — that the people he’s defending himself against are dumb-as-dirt mouth breathers who have to have self-evident truths spelled out for them. Of course he’s shouting, the ad projects: you’ve got to shout at Republicans to make them see sense.  You can’t reason with those people.

What could this gain him? A lot. By hearkening back to the vacuous, emotion-filled campaign of 2008, he sidesteps the issues and opens his arms to welcome back any Democrats who have become shaky about him during his calamitously inept first term. He can also easily draw fence-sitters with this kind of decorous, non-attack-ad approach — see, we’re above the fray. We’re what this country isreally all about; we’re the good guys. Note the reiteration of the middle name: we’re the inclusive party, the party that’s about love (mom, grandparents, community) and the dream of prosperity. We good. They bad.

This can easily work; it’s a variant of a formula that worked like a charm in 2008. And I would posit that this kind of dumbed down, context-free, content-free approach will be especially effective if the Republican nominee is someone who took Bill Clinton to the woodshed and is now indignant that he should be held accountable for similar indiscretions. That kind of thing confirms exactly what many people already believe about Republicans: that they shamelessly deploy the double standard when it suits them, and are therefore disqualified from being entrusted with the well-being of all Americans.

If a close look at your own performance will lose you the election, you change the subject. Issues, shmissues, this ad is telling us. Who makes you feel good about being an American? Who do you feel good about holding up to the world as your representative? The charmingly rumpled multicultural icon of humble origins who scaled the heights of academics and politics, or the whiter-than-white guy who can dish it out but can’t take it?

If Newt’s the nominee, we’ll get some lively presidential debates out of it, but one uptick in the economy and it’s all over until 2016. If anybody is likely to rally the undecided under Obama’s tent, it’s Gingrich.

Another Iranian Nuclear Scientist Assassinated

Yesterday, a young Iranian nuclear scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was killed while on his way to work in north Teheran. The car in which he was driving exploded; a bomb had apparently been attached to the car with a magnet by a passing motorcyclist. Roshan was identified by the Mehr News Agency as the deputy director of commercial affairs at the Natanz uraniam enrichment plant, where he was in charge of buying equipment and materials.

The Americans were quick to disavow any connection to the hit, with Hillary Clinton “categorically” denying not only this killing but “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”

The prevailing assumption is that this and the other assassinations of nuclear scientists that preceded it (as well as the explosions and cyber sabotage that have targeted the Iranian nuclear program over the past two years) are the work of Mossad, either with the tacit support or in direct defiance of the United States. It could be the work of Greens inside the country, formerly non-violent but pushed too far (a theory held by Michael Ledeen at Pajamas Media). Some of the scientists could even have been targeted by the Iranian government itself, since they were known to have sympathized to some extent with the opposition. “I think there is reason to doubt the idea that all the hits have been carried out by Israel,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The New York Times. “It’s very puzzling that Iranian nuclear scientists, whose movements are likely carefully monitored by the state, can be executed in broad daylight, sometimes in rush-hour traffic, and their culprits never found.”

Iranian score-settling might explain a few of the killings, but it doesn’t explain the broader campaign — not that it matters. Either the Americans are already waging a war of a new, more surgical kind with the intention of disrupting Iran’s nuclear program, or someone else — someone with chops — is operating with the same strategic interests in mind. All the will-they-or-won’t-they armchair pontificating about American and Israeli military intentions vis-a-vis Iran might already be beside the point.

Haaretz published a list today of mysterious deaths and explosions linked to Iran’s nuclear program. Here they are, in reverse chronological order:

  • Yesterday (January 11, 2012): Nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan is killed by a bomb.
  • December 11, 2011: An explosion at a steel mill linked with Iran’s nuclear program kills at least seven in Yazd.
  • November 28, 2011: An explosion rattles Isfahan in western Iran, where a critical nuclear facility is located.
  • November 12, 2011: A huge explosion at a military arms depot near Teheran kills 17 Revolutionary Guards as well as a senior military figure considered to be a central actor in Iran’s missile program.
  • July 23, 2011: Dariush Rezaeinejad, a young member of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, is gunned down by two men firing from motorcycles. Rezaeinejad was a PhD student involved in developing high-voltage switches, which are used to set off the explosions needed to trigger nuclear warheads.
  • May 24, 2011: An explosion causes a fire at an oil refinery during a visit by Ahmadinejad. He is not injured, but one person is killed and six others wounded.
  • November 29, 2010: Majid Shahriyari, a nuclear engineer, is killed when his car explodes. On the same day, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, a nuclear scientist sanctioned by the UN, is wounded by a car bomb.
  • January 12, 2010: Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a professor and nuclear scientist, is killed in a bombing outside his home in Teheran. Haaretz notes that Mohammadi had publicly backed opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi in the presidential election, and his name was on a list — published on pro-reform websites before the election — of university teachers who supported the opposition.

Gender Segregation in Israel

As you’re no doubt aware — I gather the American media are slavering all over this story — there is a good deal of upset over here right now concerning the disgusting abuse hurled by some ultra-orthodox Jewish men in Bet Shemesh at an eight-year-old Jewish girl. She is herself orthodox, just not orthodox enough to suit their lofty standards. They have made a habit of insulting and harassing the poor girl on her walk to school, spitting on her and calling her a whore, thus turning the walk into a daily misery for her.

The revolting behavior of these zealots toward this child has caused outrage across the religious spectrum here, including, as The New York Times rightly points out, among other ultra-orthodox. An anti-extremism rally took place in Bet Shemesh on Tuesday night, organized by Dov Lipman, an orthodox rabbi who runs the Emergency Committee to Save Bet Shemesh. The rally was only modestly attended — estimates are in the high hundreds to low thousands — but it did attract nationwide attention. The day after the rally (yesterday), Bibi told the Knesset that Israel will not countenance the behavior of “anyone who harasses women, anyone who harasses people in the public sphere…This is part of what makes Israel a liberal western democracy.”

My response to all this is mixed. I wholeheartedly support the public shaming of these self-righteous lunatics, whose fear and dislike of women — even little girls — is so profound that they will disgrace their very religion in order to shove them out of sight. It’s incredibly offensive to see these people using Judaism to justify the tormenting of a child. I’ve long believed you can tell the general health of a culture by the way it treats its females, and this behavior strikes an ominous chord.

The fringe element has been here for a long time, and their behavior continues despite the attention. I’m reminded of when I was pregnant with my first child nine years ago. We had decided I was going to have him in Jerusalem, which entailed a drive there from Rehovot, where we lived at the time. The thing is, he was due right around Yom Kippur. There was thus a degree of danger — small, but present — implicit in our driving into Jerusalem. Jewish zealots have been known to stone cars daring to break Shabbat, and Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. (You can’t write, ride a bicycle, push a stroller, carry a bag, or turn on a light, but to these people, throwing rocks at moving vehicles is perfectly kosher.)

We made signs with big red stars of David on them and taped them to the windows of the car in hopes that that would deter any would-be stone-throwers. (The idea was to convey that we were on our way to a hospital.) We weren’t stoned, as it happened — he was born the day before Yom Kippur — but we had to take the possibility into consideration.

Jewish religious extremists have been active on other fronts besides the schoolgirl-tormenting detail, staging “price-tag” attacks on Muslim sites following Muslim attacks on Jews and even allegedly monitoring and tracking IDF forces.  This is a serious problem and one that must be addressed. But I’m troubled by two elements of the response to the Bet Shemesh situation.

First, there is an inclination among some secular Israelis to tar all religious Jews with the same brush of fanaticism, just as there is among the more closed-minded religious Jews an eagerness to believe that all secular Israelis are sinful, nihilistic hedonists. As Israel Harel points out in Haaretz, many secular Israelis are quick to hold the entire religious community collectively responsible for its lunatics while refusing even to acknowledge, let alone effectively contain, the behavior of their own unsavory elements. Bibi made the point in his speech to the Knesset that “we must beware of generalizing an entire population, because the vast majority of the Haredi [ultra-orthodox] public combines an adherence to Jewish tradition and a complete respect of the law.” (Considering his coalition partners, his point might have been rather cynically motivated, but it remains true nonetheless.)

And second, it drives me crazy that this kind of story — a story about the disgraceful behavior of a tiny minority of Israeli Jews — transfixes the attention of the international media while stories like this, and this, and this warrant little more than a cursory glance, if that. I try, as a rule, not to let the double standard get to me, but in my less defended moments I do sense a combination of relief and glee in the international media’s rush to swing the Klieg lights onto Jewish bad behavior. This is an appalling incident without question and it should of course be well covered. But the perpetrators do not represent all Jews, or all Israelis, or all orthodox Jewish Israelis. Unfortunately, the climate of international reporting on Israel requires that this obvious point be made.

Merry Christmas from Israel!


I’m a big Christmas fan — I love Christmas carols and twinkly store windows and holiday movies (ever see The Bishop’s Wife, with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven?). It’s a beautiful holiday, and I always feel a bit of a pang this time of year.

I’d love to share the day with you, but all I can offer from this distance is a picture of some sufganiyot, which are the big Chanuka food here in Israel. (Holidays for us are all about the food.) Sufganiyot are not diaspora fare; I’d never heard of them until I came to Israel. A sufganiya is basically an extreme jelly doughnut: if it’s made right, it’s loaded with oozy, purply-red jam and covered with sugar. There are upscale variants — chocolate and pistachio, dulce de leche, and so on — but a true sufganiya contains your basic tooth-endangering, sickly sweet jam. The filling is concentrated in a large blob in the middle to ensure a healthy dollop down the wrist when the mother lode is struck.

Sufganiyot are what you eat for dessert after you’ve downed a few platefuls of levivot (potato pancakes) with a nice side of sour cream or apple sauce. Levivot and sufganiyot are Chanuka foods because they’re both prepared in lots of oil. (Think Maccabees and the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days.)

I raise my sufganiya to you, my friends, and wish you the merriest of all Christmases and a fabulous 2012, full of health, happiness, and encouraging election results!

Hassan Nasrallah Steps Out of Hiding (Briefly)

Hassan Nasrallah - photo by ReutersWell, they’ve obviously got some good catering going on in the bunker.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, thecapo di tutti capi of Hezbollah-choked south Lebanon, has emerged from the hideout he’s been living in since the Israelis chased him out of sight in 2006. He took a stroll this morning — surrounded by a dense crowd of dozens of bodyguards — to attend an Ashura ceremony in south Beirut. (Ashura commemorates the death of Mohammed’s grandson and is a big day for Shiites. In Afghanistan today, at least 58 Shiites were killed by unidentified suicide bombers who detonated themselves in the middle of crowds of worshippers observing Ashura.)

Nasrallah had a few rather predictable words for the cameras — a warning that the Jews want to take over East Jerusalem and destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque, for example, and an accusation that the US is the real culprit behind the detention of Palestinians and the occupying of Palestinian land. “The US is the enemy and Israel acts as their tool,” he said. More importantly, he expressed Hezbollah’s undying affiliation with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The timing is significant. On Sunday, in a clear message to Israel and the West, the Syrian regime conducted large-scale live-fire military exercises that included the firing of at least one Scud-B missile, which has a range of about 200 miles. Yesterday, in a message directed more toward the domestic front, the pro-Assad militia dumped the bodies of 34 kidnapped and murdered Syrian civilians in the middle of Homs. (The civilian death toll since the Syrian uprising began is estimated to be in the vicinity of 4,600.)

Now, bear in mind that on Friday, Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition, told The Wall Street Journal that a post-Assad Syria will revisit its relationship with both Iran and Hezbollah. The Syrian opposition is gaining international legitimacy, and that’s all Assad and his Iranian friends need right now. From Assad’s perspective, it is critical that he assert his ability to wreak havoc both internally and internationally should any attempt be made to bring him down. It’s equally critical for Iran — where military installations keep exploding — to assert the steadfastness of its relationship with its only national regional ally. It’s an indication of just how anxious Hezbollah’s patrons are feeling at the moment that they have wheeled out Nasrallah to rhapsodize on the enduring love the Hezbollah faithful feel for the Butcher of Damascus.

Weighing In on the “Israelis, Come Home” Ads

I’ve been a bit under the radar lately as I’m in the late stages of trying to get my mystery novel ready for publication — I’m self-publishing it (a saga unto itself) and have been trying to deal with an amazingly long list of decisions (just what should those squiggles that separate scenes look like?) to unexpected crises (dear God, the font I chose can only be read with a magnifying glass! The whole thing will have to be typeset all over again, augghh! And why the @%$&* does the proofer keep shoving hyphens after my adverbs?) to writerly angst (wait, I’m using adverbs?) to anxiety over budget creep (hang on, that printing cost was based on an estimated 330-page book…what do you mean, it came out to 400?). So I’ve been trundling along, trying to get all that done and still get the kids fed and at school on time, which hasn’t left much quiet time for ruminating over the implications of the Egyptian election, or the Arab League’s sanctions on Syria, or much of anything, really.

But I have been checking in here at Ricochet when I can, and enjoying the usual high standard of ideas and conversation. It wasn’t until this morning that I happened across Claire’s piece expressing her disgust with the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s ad campaign (since retracted by Netanyahu) exhorting Israeli expats in the US to come home to Israel before they and their children are lost to Israel forever.

Now, I know this business has offended people and I shouldn’t make light of it, but it’s all so quintessentially Israeli that it made me laugh out loud.  The ad campaign is a gigantic guilt trip wrapped in cozy charm, which is about as Jewish as it gets. It was put together and shoved onto the air without it occurring to anyone at the Absorption Ministry to run the concept by the Foreign Ministry or the PM’s office, which was either a brazen end-run (hey, maybe it’ll get through!) or a bureaucratic dropping of the ball (much more likely), either of which would have been thoroughly Israeli. It was heavy-handed, a little crass, self-defeating, accidentally offensive, but done very professionally and with genuinely good intentions (oy vey, so Israeli!).

As an American Jew, do I find the ads personally offensive?

No, for the simple reason that the point they make — that the decision of Israelis to move to the US marks the beginning of a disconnection from Israel that will manifest clearly and indelibly in the next generation — is so obviously true. This is debatable? While I would argue that in many essential ways, Israel is a better place to be a Jew, it’s easier in America (especially for secular Jews), for two big reasons. First, you have the life-simplifying option of forgetting about your Jewishness completely when it suits you. And second, you live in a great big country with lots of space between you and vast populations of testy people who wouldn’t mind coming up with some way of making your large population centers spontaneously combust.

I was a little nonplussed by all the ire directed at the ads because the fear they enact — that Jewish kids, one generation away from Israel, won’t have a clue what Memorial Day means, or why anyone should care — is absolutely on target. I’d say to any Israeli considering a move to America to do it with their eyes open. They should acknowledge exactly what it is they’re doing: detaching their future kids from Israel. Skip all the hand-waving about Skyping to Saba and Savta back in Rishon and shlepping the kids for two-week sightseeing tours in the Galilee. Go ahead and do those things, yes, but don’t expect those gestures to turn those kids back into Israelis. They will never identify as anything other than Americans with Israeli parents. I’d advise anyone weighing this decision to look at that head on, assess how they feel about it, and if they’re okay with it, buy the tickets.

To amplify: my point is not that it’s a tragedy for Israelis to make this choice. My point is that Israelis who leave should not deny that this the choice they’re making. You want Israeli kids, you raise them in Israel. No Jewish kid born and raised in Silver Spring is going to consider himself Israeli, no matter how Israeli his parents are. Why should he?

To the American Jews insulted by the ads, I understand their feelings, but I think they’re a little misplaced. Boneheaded as the ads are, they demonstrate Israel’s quandary when dealing with expats: in trying to talk anyone who’s now ensconced in American comforts to come back to a place that is so much less comfortable, and that will push the kids into the army yet, the only card Israel has to play is the guilt card. It’s a little tacky, true. But it’s been our old standby for five thousand years.

Serious Explosion Shakes Isfahan, Site of Iranian Nuclear Facilities

A huge explosion went off this afternoon in Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city. If this was sabotage, Isfahan was a heck of a target: not only does the city contain several experimental nuclear reactors, but just outside it is a uranium conversion facility where uranium is processed into uranium hexaflouride gas (UF6). UF6 is stockpiled at the facility and then shipped to enrichment plants in Natanz and Qom.

The explosion was big enough to be heard all over Isfahan. It caused so much alarm among the local population that the official news agencies are having a difficult time getting away with a flat denial that the explosion took place (although not for lack of trying).

There is thus a good deal of Keystone-Kops-esque running around in circles among the Iranian media right now. The deputy mayor of Isfahan confirmed the explosion to the Fars news agency, only to completely contradict himself to the Mehr news agency later in the day. (Fars evaporated the original report containing his confirmation, and the deputy mayor is now saying he never spoke to Fars at all. ) The head of the province’s judiciary told Iran’s ISNA news agency that an “explosion-like noise” was heard in Isfahan, but didn’t get any more specific. The governor of Isfahan, Alireza Zaker-Isfahani, said the boom had something to do with a military exercise and was shocked — shocked! — at the suggestion of a connection to any of the nuclear facilities. Mehr has taken the line that a gas station blew up.

No credible reports have emerged yet as to what actually exploded. Whatever it was, this is yet another in an accumulating series of explosions in Iran, the most recent of which killed seventeen Republican Guard soldiers as well as a senior officer generally considered to be the architect of Iran’s missile program. That explosion occurred two weeks ago at Bidganeh, where Iran builds and stores its long-range ballistic missiles.

No one knows who (no matter what they claim to know), but it does appear that somebody is trying to disrupt the Iranian regime’s offensive capability.

Official Iranian news organs, rather than joining the general consensus among the foreign punditocracy that Israel and/or the US was behind the Bidganeh explosion, insist that it was an accident. No matter who was behind that one, it was assessed today by Brigadier General Itai Baron, head of the IDF’s Intelligence Research Department, as having severely dented Iran’s surface-to-surface missile capability.  (For what it’s worth, Baron categorically denied that Israel had anything to do with it.)

As I noted in that earlier piece on the explosions, Michael Ledeen at Pajamas Media thinks the assumption of Israeli or American involvement in these explosions — while a temptingly tidy narrative — is hogwash. According to him, swallowing such an assumption whole, without evidence, distracts from the real story: a swing by the heretofore nonviolent Iranian Green movement (i.e., the Iranian opposition) toward all-out guerrilla war. As a commenter on my earlier piece pointed out, Ledeen appears to be as light on the evidence front as any other pundit, so we’ll reserve judgement until he’s more forthcoming about his own sources. It’s worth thinking about, though, because a strategic shift of this kind by the Greens could represent an opportunity for the Obama administration to redeem itself for its prior refusal to assist the pro-democracy, anti-Islamist movement.

Caution is advised, however. I reiterate that not only are the perpetrators (if there were any) of today’s explosion unknown, but it’s unclear what happened in the first place. All we can say from a distance is that a pattern of violence appears to be developing. Whether the explosions are the work of the Greens on their own, the Greens with US help, the Israelis covertly, or the Israelis in concert with either party, they’re giving the regime some extremely anxious moments. It remains to be seen whether the mullahs — who have already responded internally against the Greens’ leadership — will respond on a grander scale by taking preemptive offensive action against any of the targets they’ve rattled off in the recent past. (Israel tops the list; Turkey — for all the rhetoric — seems a much less appealing option for them.) If things continue the way they’re going, it’s not inconceivable that they’ll be too crippled too quickly to get a major offensive off the ground no matter what their intentions.

Strategic Shift Inside Iranian Opposition?

explosion in IranAs you may have read, there was a humungous explosion at a Revolutionary Guards base outside Tehran over the weekend that is reported to have killed 17 soldiers and wounded 16. One of the dead was Brig. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, identified byThe New York Times as a “top commander in Iran’s ballistic missile program.” This explosion follows on the heels of three explosions in the Iranian energy sector at the end of October that may or may not be connected.

Michael Ledeen has an interesting piece up at Pajamas in which he analyzes this recent spate of explosions. He dismisses, first of all, the rampant theorizing “sucked from the thumbs of pundits who feel they must write quickly” that this is obviously the work of the Israelis or the Americans. In Ledeen’s view, “the operation [this past weekend] was planned and carried out by Iranians from the opposition-that-does-not-exist.”

He notes that the whopper explosion was actually several. According to his sources,

  • There were two explosions at the RG base at Bidganeh, one smaller, the other very large;
  • At almost the same time, there was an explosion at another military base in the west, in Luristan. The explosions seem to have been coordinated;
  • The area around Bigdaneh is a military zone, with various facilities including two air fields, thus questions like “was it a munitions depot or a missile base?” are best answered “yes.  both.”

According to Ledeen, these most recent explosions indicate that at long last, the Green Movement has turned away from its policy of non-violence and is taking on the mullahs in a language they understand. The mullahs seem to be listening: Ledeen cites an unsubstantiated report that two leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been plucked from house arrest and spirited away, presumably as hostages to restrain the Greens from taking further violent action:

This bespeaks a high level of anxiety within the regime, suggesting that they feared an all-out assault was under way…Whether or not the rumor is true, its existence suggests that Khamenei et. al. take a more serious view of the opposition than some of our own expert analysts.

Now, even The New York Times has called President Obama’s response to the IAEA’s recent report detailing evidence of Iran’s push to construct a nuclear warhead “strikingly muted.” Tantalizing as this potential new development is, the odds of Obama taking the opportunity to push for assistance to the Greens (and thereby erase the memory of his obliviousness to their cause in 2009) remain slim to nil. If there is to be any stepped-up Western support for the Greens, it is more likely to come from France than the US.